Film legend Jerry Lewis died Sunday at 91 in Las Vegas. In early 2016, Lewis sat down with The Times’ Mark Olsen on the eve of the release of “Max Rose,” Lewis’ first starring role in more than two decades. This article was published Sept. 6, 2016.
Long before Jerry Lewis even enters a room, his presence and fame fill it. The expectation of his arrival conjures many images and personas, the comedic misfit, the serious maker of smartly silly movies, the earnestly maudlin telethon host, the tireless stage entertainer, the teller of tales from Hollywood’s classical golden age.
Arguably the only constant across those identities is his reputation as an exacting perfectionist. So just why is Jerry Lewis known for being difficult?
“Because I am,” he said with firm declaration. “I expect people that come to the studio to work to come with the same energy I come with. If I see less than that, I get very strong about, if you want to do this, come with a sense of pride, come with eagerness and anxiety.
At 90, Lewis recently made his entrance to the lounge of a hotel in Beverly Hills being pushed in a wheelchair, struggling a bit to move into an armchair on his own. There is a fragility about him that is at odds with the strength of his persona. At the same time, he still exudes the charisma, the confidence and the fortitude of a life spent in show business — he first appeared onstage at age 5. Three times during a recent hour-long conversation he locked eyes with this reporter with the intense death stare of a man not to be crossed.
In the new film “Max Rose,” opening Friday in Los Angeles, Lewis plays a retired jazz musician who, while mourning the death of his wife, becomes suspicious that she carried on a long-term affair with another man. His first leading role in a movie since 1995’s “Funny Bones,” Lewis’ performance is ruminative and interior, sincere and raw. The role is potentially a fitting grace note to a storied career.
The film was written and directed by Daniel Noah, also one of the co-founders of the Los Angeles-based genre-focused production outfit SpectreVision, who began the screenplay after having spent a great deal of time with his grandfather in his last years, grieving the death of his grandmother.
When it came to casting the title role, Noah eventually landed on the idea of Lewis — “It really came down to Jerry, there was no one else,” he said — but struggled to contact the star. He finally found a phone number for Lewis’ office in Las Vegas but was told Lewis wouldn’t read anything that was sent. Noah sent the script anyway. And a few weeks after Lewis accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscars, he called. He was in.
“And this was the great misstep of Cannes,” said Noah, who recut and shortened the film after the festival. “Taking a star the caliber of Jerry, it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because he’s such a heavyweight that doors blow open, but it also means the whole world is watching, and they’re watching closely.”
In the film Lewis’ character is looked after by his granddaughter (Kerry Bishé) as he attempts to repair his relationship with his son (Kevin Pollak). That aspect of the film may have hit close to home with Lewis, who has six sons from his first marriage and one daughter with his wife Sam, to whom he has been married since 1983. His youngest son, Joseph, died of a drug overdose in 2009 at age 45.
A question about any connection he may have felt between his own family life and that of the character of Max Rose, whether sacrifices were made at home for his career, is what drew Jerry Lewis death stare No. 1.
“Did I miss something? No. My family was as absolute as the work,” Lewis said. “Family was first always.”
For Noah, his personal relationship with Lewis grew in the time that they spent together after Lewis had agreed to participate. Yet they didn’t talk about story or character, rather they just spoke about themselves, about their lives. And for Noah it became clearer why Lewis was drawn to the role.
“I gradually became aware that some of Max’s issues are Jerry’s issues,” said Noah. “Jerry suggested Kevin Pollak, who I later realized looks a lot like his sons. I think something like that is so delicate, you just don’t touch it.”
Those people that think you’re difficult, respect you tremendously... They may not like it, but they respect it.
At various times in his career, Lewis has played characters which revealed more about himself than, perhaps, he wanted to let out of the box. The sleazoid lounge-lizard Buddy Love — the alter-ego to Lewis’ timid Professor Julius Kelp — might not be the swipe at Lewis’ former partner Dean Martin but rather an examination of Lewis’ own internal conflict, between the egotist and the earnest. Lewis’ isolation by fame was dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film “The King of Comedy,” in which he plays a late-night television host held hostage. And, in “Max Rose,” he plays a man grappling with the question of whether his work, and by extension his life, have added up to anything.
This line of inquiry, whether he has exposed his own darkest emotions and thoughts onscreen, prompts Jerry Lewis death stare No. 2.
“You’re going very deep. Very deep,” he said firmly. “And the answers to what you’re talking about don’t come easy.”
Yet Lewis has mentioned that when he first saw the finished cut of “Max Rose,” he felt he had never seen himself onscreen in that way before.
“It didn’t surprise me so much as get my attention,” he said. “When you’re doing a different kind of film, you have to bring a different kind of attitude, you have to bring a different kind of concentration. I just wanted to do it right, and make it true.”
A question about the notorious unreleased, unseen film “The Day the Clown Cried,” which writer-director Lewis made in Europe in the early 1970s and in which he starred as a Jewish clown who leads children to the Nazi gas chambers during WWII, invokes a third and final Jerry Lewis death stare.
“Can’t talk about it. I won’t,” Lewis said. “You can ask me anything you want, that doesn’t mean I’m going to answer you.”
It was reported in 2015 that Lewis’ archives were going to the Library of Congress and that “The Day the Clown Cried” may at last be available for public view in 10 years’ time. Lewis has other thoughts on the matter.
“Never,” he said as to whether the film would finally be shown publicly. “After I’m dead 30 years you won’t see it. I’ve got it worked out so there’s nothing to show.”
And with that, a wink. Playful, inviting and mischievous, it is the exact opposite of the door-slam death stare. And an encapsulation of the enigmatic split between Lewis’ difficult reputation and the headstrong but apparently gentle man he seems to be today.
Noah has come to know that divide well. “I was very steeled for a painful relationship,” he said. “I think people think I’m spinning when I say this, but I can’t account for the difference between the reputation and the man I know. He seemed to be nothing but warmth and love.”
The final moments of “Max Rose” would make for an emotional, elegiac farewell to one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. Just don’t tell that to Jerry Lewis.
“I don’t know that that’s the case,” Lewis said of how he would feel if “Max Rose” were his last leading role onscreen. “I could start one tomorrow. And I’ve got two in my typewriter now. I’ve been writing for probably a year and a half on a screenplay that I love and that I will do.
“I’m only 90, for Christ’s sake. What do you want?”
Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus
From the Archives: In the kingdom of the clown: Jerry Lewis remasters his life’s work